Following on from their traditional outdoor season at the Actor’s Church, which saw productions of The Tempest and The Three Musketeers, Iris Theatre now head out to East London for their autumn show: a new adaptation of Arabian Nights. Nessah Muthy has compiled a selection of the One Thousand and One Nights tales, picking out a range of both comic and tragic tales – but all linked thematically, with a bit of a focus on the working class woman. Daniel Winder directs the show, that combines puppetry, masks & music to bring these timeless stories to a new audience.
King Shahryar is in the middle of a brutal reign, seeking his own brand of justice over all womankind by taking an endless succession of brides – he marries them in the evening and then executes them the next morning. When his eye lands on slave girl Dunzayad, her sister Sharazad offers to take her place to fulfil her promise to their mother that she’d protect her; the king accepts, making no guarantees that Dunzayad would not simply follow in her footsteps the next day. In order to placate him, and extend both their lives, Sharazad starts to tell her stories – King Shahryar enjoys himself, and even seems to learn a thing or two from them. But will it be enough to alter the sisters’ fate?
In all, around half a dozen or so tales are told (though several stories make up the Sinbad section) to create a show lasting approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Knowing the sheer volume of material left untapped almost makes you think that Iris Theatre have barely scratched the surface, when in reality they have created a rounded piece of theatre with a driving narrative and a good range of individual stories included. All I’d say is it could perhaps get into the heart of the production a little sooner, with Sharazad simply telling the king stories rather than including The Cat and the Crow, which she tells Dunzayad; the show is at its best when the selection of 1,001 stories are called upon.
Muthy’s production also puts a new stamp on the classic framing tale of Shahryar and Scheherazade (here it’s Sharazad) by changing the role of her sister, which gives her an additional motive to volunteer to marry the king. It also makes the whole thing feel fresh, which is always helpful when a good chunk of the audience will know some or all of the story already. What isn’t really needed is the slight attempt at audience participation, particularly in the story of the man who was turned into an ape; randomly asking a couple of patrons to write something as a test of their handwriting is a little odd.
The beautiful Hoxton Hall is a great fit for Amber Scarlett’s set design, complemented also by Maddy Ross-Masson’s costume designs. It’s a cosy setting, which provides immediate intimacy with the performers and seems apt for a show in which we’ll be settling in to hear stories. The gorgeous warm colour scheme takes us to the Arabian Nights of our imaginations, enhanced (and occasionally darkened) by Ben Polya’s vibrant lighting design. A key to the storytelling lies within a variety of puppetry techniques – the tales of Sinbad definitely stand out here, allowing his encounters with weird & wonderful creatures to be brought to life in front of our very eyes. Jonny Dixon’s designs are detailed & practical, as well as evocative of children playing with puppets to tell stories amongst themselves.
The cast of six are kept on their toes and show great skill, with plenty of doubling to ensure all of the stories can be acted out. There is a discrepancy between their accents – some do seem to be affecting a chosen eastern accent, others do not – which feels random rather than deliberate, and so unnecessarily inconsistent. Of them all, Sharon Singh and Pravessh Rana definitely stand out as Sharazad and King Shahryar; Singh demonstrating Sharazad’s incredible humanity, and Rana developing his character from tyrant to self-aware man.
My verdict? A gloriously colourful adaptation of a well-known collection of tales, freshened up by Iris Theatre – the puppetry is a highlight of the storytelling.
Arabian Nights runs at Hoxton Hall until 13 October 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.